Fields of Gold

by Garry Jones

October 27 2012

Last time I wrote I encouraged conservationists amongst us to say something about the middle of the field and how it is possible for fields to be edible and biodiverse. Before I explore that, we need some context to explain why the two concepts now seem so very distant from one another.

What does a biodiverse field look like? This is actually rather hard to answer, because there are so few of us who have ever seen one. If you can, ask your grandparents or great grandparents. Those who were around before the Second World War are few and far between; though children of the 40’s and 50’s may also have experienced wild meadows. Perhaps they played in one near home, or when visiting country relatives. Some may have been lucky enough to live there, though unlucky if they or their parents were farmers, dependent on the land as government and corporations moved into the food market. If you can find an eyewitness, ask them what it looked like? Better still, what it sounded like, or smelt like or even tasted like?

They’ll describe a countryside literally squirming with life. If you sat down in a field, you’d find yourself covered in grasshoppers, surrounded by butterflies, buzzing with bees. The reason for all of this invertebrate fervor? The plants. Take a walk in a local nature reserve today and you’ll be delighted to see cowslips, cuckoo flower, meadow cranesbill and several more. But this is poor by comparison- for each and every meadow before the war was brimming, overflowing with flowers, not a handful, not even a dozen or twenty different kinds. It was perfectly normally, so normal that few even questioned it, for an ordinary meadow to have fifty, sixty, seventy different species of flowers and grasses. This is biodiversity and it used to be common as muck.

Ok, so what is a field today? A field is for growing a crop. A crop is a single species. In fact more than that, it is a single variety and usually a single genotype. A field full of cloned individual plants; all identical in their genetic makeup or very very similar. This is important for two reasons: firstly, the farmer that grows it knows exactly what they are selling and barring a bad season, they also know exactly how much. Secondly, the company that buys from them and lots of other farmers has an equal measure of control and can therefore also control how much they pay for this specific crop or commodity as it has now become. They don’t have to bargain, trade or barter, they just demand a specific amount of a specific crop at a specific price. The farmer has little room to manoeuvre, as his customer goes elsewhere if he does. Furthermore, the farmer has to buy the seed that grows his crop in the first place and because he needs to ensure he gets as much as possible from his harvest, the same companies sell him fertilisers to ‘feed’ his crop and pesticides to ‘protect’ it.

All very interesting you may say, but at the end of the day, I am happier eating his crop of wheat or potatoes or rice or whatever than munching on flowers, however biodiverse they may be and whilst it’s unfortunate that the crop field is devoid of wild nature, what can I do, I have to eat! True, you do have to eat. But let me pose two questions… do you have to eat only what you currently tend to eat? And second, do the things you tend to eat even now, have to be grown in single crop fields?

The answer for me and a growing number of people (no pun intended) is no. Even if you really like wheat, oats, potatoes and rice, most people also like vegetables of several kinds and salad leaves and meat for that matter. We humans are omnivores and contrary to popular misconception this means we can and do eat a variety of things – we are very versatile, flexible and open-minded when it comes to food (as opposed to the common usage of omnivore; that we are ‘meant’ to eat both meat and veggies). In Europe and North America we have become used to a very much reduced range of foods compared to other parts of the world. We rely very heavily on a few high carbohydrate crops such as wheat and potatoes. We have also become very used to a narrow range of fruit and vegetables, dominated by a few roots such as carrots and leaves such as cabbage, spinach and lettuce. I don’t have the space here, but suffice to say, there is so much more out there. One man who has taken this concept and explored it with enthusiasm is Martin Crawford. In his ‘garden’ in Devon, Martin is growing over 200 species if edible plants, most of which you won’t find in a regular farmers field. But what you will find amongst his food is masses of biodiversity. Even if you take the sixty-species strong meadow described above, you will find more there to eat than just some distant relative of wheat or rice. And this is the point, it was fine, perfectly reasonable to take those plants which were most edible and try to breed and make more of them, so that the flower rich fields were able to better sustain us. But, we took it too far and made it too simple, wiping out all but the one or two species we desired the most at that particular time. It was unnecessary and short sighted. If you feel like having coffee one day, you don’t throw out all your other drinks, chuck out every tea bag, wash away the fruit juice and fill every cupboard with coffee! Why? Because tomorrow you might want something different, your mood and taste may change. The trouble is, our cupboards are now full of only a few things and we’ve forgotten it could ever be different. Some people are waking up to this, and what a marvelous discovery it can be for all of us. A whole new world of taste and texture and flavour.

To return to the second question- we will probably still want a lot of the ‘staples’ such as wheat and potatoes. So, do we have to grow them in the way we do now? No, we don’t and in fact this way has become very expensive and harmful. Another inspirational figure and another Martin, is showing us one way to do things differently. Instead of planting acre after acre of mono-crop wheat, Martin Wolfe intersperses rows of wheat with alleys of trees and wildflowers on his farm, Wakelyns in Suffolk. His farm is still buzzing and humming with wildlife as a result too. But, what is more, his yields are high and sustainably so, no fertilisers or pesticides so no worries if or rather when the oil runs out and no contribution to climate change either. The wildlife that surrounds his ‘crop’ helps the crop to function without all that artificial extra help. The trees shade the crop from excess heat in the summer and save water stress. The wildflowers attract pollinating insects but also control the pest population as they allow a diverse and therefore competing group of bugs to live on the farm – rather than a locust like swarm moving through in one foul swoop. The plants also benefit the crops because of what goes on underneath the ground. Without constant ploughing, the wildflower alleys establish deep and complex relationships with each other and the fungi in the soil. Together they draw up nutrients from deep in the earth, share resources and protect one another from pests. They are so healthy they can share this nutritional and health advantage with the surrounding soil and organisms, including the crops.

And so, the art of the possible- we can easily grow a wider diversity of crops that can be eaten by us whilst also being eaten by wildlife and providing habitat. Plus we can continue to grow some more intensive plantations of carbohydrate rich crops intermingled with wild spaces that actually support the crops. So why don’t we?

Because everything I have talked about above would allow for food production, good farming and maintenance of farmer livelihoods but none of it allows for profit, for wealth and riches. The biodiverse way is an equitable way. It rewards farmers, but not too much. It rewards consumers, but not too much and it keeps the land itself in balance- taking a little, but not too much. The system I describe is a way of life for feeding communities. The system we have is a business for feeding the rich with money and their interests are strongly defended. A system without much need for oil, pesticides, fertilisers, transport, seed ownership, marketing, is a system without much need for them (at least as they currently are). So, it is perfectly possible for us conservationists to have a biodiverse middle of the field and get along with small scale farmers and eat the fruits of all our hard work. What is not possible is to have this whilst large corporations continue to dominate and control the food market.

If you are a conservationist, then please remain a conservationist when you buy your food. Buy it local, buy it organic, support small farmers, avoid supermarkets and large corporations. Better still, grow a little or a lot of your own and reduce the demand in the first place. At work, seek out these farms and farmers, support them, learn from them and each other, even run a farm or two and let them run a nature reserve on their farm. And please, please, please keep talking about the middle of the field because the food we all eat is our biodiversity, or at least it once was… and it could be again.

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